Innovations, Contrivances and Crazy Straws
I don’t feel old, unless I look at the “Before Today’s Date In” sign for purchasing cigarettes (1991) or when I find another gray hair in my sideburns (today’s count: 14). Modern technology can deliver just about any content produced in the last five decades, resulting in a pop culture omnibus that allows younger crowds to know all about the Goonies, Nick Drake songs from commercials, throwback soda with natural sugar, and the first Gulf War.
That’s right, the war with Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait started in August of 1990. That means a person born during Desert Storm could now be serving in Baghdad, Basra or Kirkuk at the tail end of the second American occupation. And right now, he could be watching a DVD of G.I. Joe cartoons or listening to a Kid Rock mp3.
There is something magic about this delivery system, equal parts nostalgia and wonder. This train of thought all started when I spotted a crazy straw at a recent kid’s birthday party, where the pinata was stuffed with Dollar Store toys, the table decorated with festive Dollar Store utensils. I picked one up, and marveled at how tame this “crazy” straw really was — a simple sine wave pattern that made it mildly unbalanced, certainly not insane.
Like all misguided assumptions I make, I immediately believed it was a sign that, by dumbing down something so ingenious, we are losing our cultural sense of clever style. It’s not enough to have a blinking DON’T WALK sign; now they are all LED-lit and have countdown clocks. Over near Marquette University, there is even a booming voice and klaxon that demands you stay put; imagine, if you will, the pedestrian audio instruction voice in Blade Runner.
Many recent innovations come from the packaging and formula re-tooling of an item. Now we almost expect salad dressing to squeeze out of a hole; when it comes gushing out of the neck unrestricted, there’s a shock at how crude it is. Men’s boxer briefs have become satiny and fit better. They are made of a thin cotton/Lycra blend, and it’s a disturbing sensation to realize that Jockey (or George, pictured right) has successfully sold you women’s underwear with a bit more cup room and leg. Women are now being sold lingerie-like underwear called ‘boyshorts‘, so I guess we’re even.
Recently, antennas on houses became nearly obsolete as the digital conversion happened at last. This resulted in clear pictures on TVs — except when the converter digitally freezes up. So that part was a wash. Local stations now have the luxury of adding sub-carrier channels, which more commonly have become repositories for forgotten programs accompanied by interminable ads for the Post-T-Vac and Extenze. What was billed as innovation is being used to sell contrivances. The contrivances here are items that have “new and improved” features to impart imagined superiority over another item, or an original item that is ridiculous in its delivery to produce something that should be simple. Think Topsy-Turvy tomato planters.
I said before that I assumed all crazy straws to be tamer than I remember. Then I went to a Wal-Mart this morning for research purposes and quickly found a hanging display of clear, loopy straws that were closer to what I remembered from childhood past. Afterward I hopped on the internet to find at least one company, called Krazy Straws, that has taken the low-culture art form to a whole new high (see pictured left). There is always someone hanging onto the mantle for dear life.
Technological marvels, it seems, eventually filter down into our everyday lives. But think about items that inevitably begin their lives in our cultural consciousness as “As Seen on TV.” These begin their pop culture reign at the bottom (think Shamwow, the Slap Chop, Ped Egg, Blu-Blockers, Ginsu knives, Bowflex and the entire Miles Kimball or Harriet Carter catalog). And they come around again and again, in a new form with a new name and a new pitch towards convenience and self-improvement.
The most popular item in the Exposition Center at the Wisconsin State Fair was definitely the vibrating exercise machine (unclear if it was the Crazy Fit or the Power Plate). This is a real device which first broke onto the scene three years ago, but hasn’t really been seen in Wisconsin until now. Imagine a Stairmaster or treadmill meets a Wii Fit and an earthqauke. According to the manufacturers, you literally don’t have to do much other than stand there and let the machine work out muscles and improve circulation. If this sounds familiar, it’s because previously in the 1920s and 1950s fitness centers had similar devices which worked by strapping a belt around the belly and jostling the fat out of you. The technology here is claimed to be born out of the Russian space program, however. This makes its claim even more dubious.
We want to believe in humanity’s ability to take us from a stone wheel to a nitrogen-filled, radial, all-weather, rim-spinning wheel. We want to remember the simple yet inventive joys of our youth (that’s you, Tupperware Pop A Lot). But most of all, we’ve come to embrace the additions to items that make our daily lives better and focused. While the MRI steals all the thunder from the X-Ray, high-speed maglev trains outshine diesel models and underwear technology becomes unisex — we as a species will always be looking for ways to live in the past while enjoying the spoils of the future.